IS WASHINGTON becoming the new New Haven?" asked a young man who was surprised that at least 20 new works will open here this season.
Actually, New Haven and Boston don't have the tryouts they once did. And Washington, far from becoming the new New Haven, is merely becoming the old Washington.
Through the years, new productions have been a major part of the local theater scene. Among numerous works that have opened here before traveling elsewhere are many that have made theatrical and social history.
It's fitting that "West Side Story's" first major revival should be scheduled come New Year's Eve at the Opera House. The Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein-Jerome Robbins variation on "Romeo and Juliet" had its premiere at the National in August '57, prompting this critic's shortest lead sentence: "'West Side Story' is a work of art," Period. Paragraph. Will it seem so in 1980?
During the run only one major change was tried, a new spot for the comedy song, "Gee, Officer Krupke." That lasted only one performance. Ever since, "West Side Story" has been performed as it was that first night. It introduced such then-unknowns as Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera and Martin Charnin, the dancer who 20 years later would conceive another hit musical, "Annie."
And it is equally fitting that Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day" will be having its first American performances Oct 12 at the Eisenhower. It was at the National, in September '67, that Stoppard made his U. S. bow with "Rosencrantz and "(WORD ILLEGIBLE)" Are Dead." His Shakespearean allusions are still continuing in the current Terrace Theater American premiere of the British American Repertory Company's "Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth."
In terms of political history, the city's most fruitful tryout proved to be for a play that had a relatively brief life. To usher in a new drama by Maxwell Anderson -- "Joan of Lorraine," starring Ingrid Bergman -- the Playwrights' Company had turned from the National, previously booked by another attraction, to George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. In November '46, GWU took the stand that it would hold to the National's policy of total exclusion of black Americans.
The result was that the Dramatists Guild and Actors' Equity agreed not to play Washington until all Americans would be admitted to its theaters, a ban that didn't take effect until Aug. 1, 1948. The time-consuming result proved more important to the nation's capital than "Joan" did for Anderson's reputation as dramatist.
But all of these are recent successes in Washington's long history of tryouts, which extends back about 100 years. In 1879, a new London musical began what would lead to a righteous international copyright law. (The Soviet Union has just signed up, a century later!) "H.M.S. Pinafore" was pirated here the spring before its New York bow of December 1879, and what was called a "colored" version swiftly followed. Through a surprise production of their latest -- "The Pirates of Penzance" -- that December in New York, Gilbert and Sullivan finally would win their copyright battle over the international play thieves.
Around the turn of the century, Charles and Daniel Frohman introduced a London hit by James M. Barrie to star Maude Adams at Lafayette Square. It was called "Peter Pan." It moved the mext week, Nov. 6, 1905, to New York and, as the present musical version showed this summer at the Kennedy Center, it's pretty much been running ever since.
The '20s were eventful, too.In The Washington Post of Nov. 16, 1927, the late John J. Daly hailed the new musical that had run 100 minutes overtime the night before at the National.
It was called "Show Boat," and Daly enthused especially over "a song destined to become as popular as the Volga Boatman's Song, 'Old Man River.'" Oscar Hammerstein II, later the librettist for "Oklahoma!," never was satisfied with the cuts he had to make, but withal "Show Boat" deserves a smashing, first-class revival.
The '30s were one of the most colorful decades.
Maybe the reason George S. Kaufman described satire as "something that closes on Saturday night" lay in "Bring on the Girls." It opened the same night in September '34 as the American Bankers Association's annual meeting here. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind -- who'd done so well with "Of Thee I Sing" -- here needled Franklin Roosevelt's Keynesian fiscal policies and wrote a second-act curtain that stuffed the stage with government-financed gift boxes: hundreds of them, garishly wrapped, containing fur coats, diamonds and other desirables.
"Bring on the Girls" ended its career the following Saturday night. Years later I asked its star, Jack Benny, why they hadn't gone on knocking audiences silly. He replied: "After that Act II curtain, no one could think of how to top it, and we had a whole act to go."
"She's busier than a cat on a hot tin roof" was a line from a Washington tryout of September '38, and it wasn't by Tennessee Williams. It was by Clare Boothe, "Kiss the Boys Goodbye." The hunt had just begun for a Scarlett O'Hara for the movie "Gone with the Wind," and Boothe's play mocked the publicity-hyped search for an actress to play one Velvet O'Toole in a Civil War movie. It was one of the funniest topical satires ever I saw and went on to high favor as outright farce. When it was published, author Boothe, who became Clare Boothe Luce and a congresswoman from Connecticut, confounded all by declaring the play to be "a political allegory about fascism in America." Why doesn't someone give Mrs. Luce another first night?
October of 1938 had brought tryouts for the first two productions of the just-formed Playwrights' Company, an alliance of writers that would endure nearly 20 years. Robert E. Sherwood's "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," cheered by all, went on to a Pulitzer, and Raymond Massey's Lincoln would overshadow his career.
The next week brought the anxious new firm's second venture, "Knickerbocker Holiday," by Anderson to a Kurt Weill score, wherein Walter Houston introduced "September Song." There was a character of old New Amsterdam in it named Roosevelt so, for the second time in as many weeks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went to the National on a Saturday night.
A sleeper of '34 was a comedy from which little was expected. Actor-author John Cecil Holm titled it "Hobby Horses," but director George Abbott, who wrote a missing last act, called it "Three Men on a Horse." Shirley Booth and Sam Levene headed the cast, which included, in a very small role, Garson Kanin, who would later write "Born Yesterday." The assistant stage manager was a kid named Bobby Griffith, who co-produced "West Side Story" 23 years later.
Orson Welles proved ahead of his time in February '39 when he tried pulling Shakespeare's Henry histories into one play. He called it "Five Kings." Burgess Meredith was Prince Hal, and it closed forever after its stormy National week. Thirty years later, knitting the Henry plays was a common trick from Stratford-upon-Avon to Central Park.
In the following decade, one of the most controversial of all American plays, Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," tackled the National before New York in October '42. Helen Hayes had turned it down and recommended Tallulah Bankhead for Sabina, the maid who mutters "I don't know what this play is all about." Some of the critics and audiences agreed, but Wilder's uncommon history of the human race would win the Pulitzer, as had the previous fall's Playwrights' Company offering, Sherwood's "There Shall Be No Night," which starred the Lunts in one of their several Washington bows for new plays.
Bankhead and her unknown leading man had a tempestuous feud during the National's tryout of Cocteau's "The Eagle Has Two Heads" in February '47. She fired Marlon Brando, and the next December he became Stanley Kowalski of "A Streetcar Named Desire." When "Dear Charles" didn't work with Lilli Darvas at the National in January '54, the same producers, Richard Aldrich, Richard Myers and Julius Fleischmann, brought it back to the same stage nine months later with Tallulah. The first visit it had played to $2,700 for the week. With Tallulah it grossed $37,000, which is what real stars, not the merely "billed" ones, are all about, (Fleischmann's daughter, Joan, is now Mrs. Maurice Tobin, wife of the National's board chairman.)
With Roger L. Stevens at the helm, the Playwrights' Company would introduce many long-lasting works here. Robert Anderson's "Tea and Sympathy," of September '53, starred Deborah Kerr one year after the Arena Stage had introduced playwright Anderson's first produced play, "All Summer Long." Elmer Rice's "The Bad Seed" opened in September '54, starring Nancy Kelly, with Patty McCormack, who now co-stars in TV's "The Ropers." The notion was that they'd be hits, and they were.
The '60s continued the tradition. Another Pulitzer winner was unveiled when Arena introduced Howard Sackler's "The Great White Hope" in December '67. It took a season for "Hope" to reach New York with much the same cast and to win all the '68 awards. In May '73, Arena would introduce another long-lived work, "Raisin," the musical from Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." Arena's record for new works continued last season, when it introduced Michael Weller's "Loose Ends," now, with its nudity veiled, a Broadway success. Arena had presented Weller's first U. S. production, "Moonchildren," in '72, and after Broadway proved unkind, that play was rewarded with a two-season off-Broadway run.
Tryouts can be helpful or disatrous. In the spring of '62 a new, 12-minute beginning for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" asserted the tone of the farce, clearing its way to thousands of performances. Tossing out $20,000 worth of costumes and orchestrations and putting in a like sum for a new Act I finale, producer David Merrick turned "Hello Dolly" into his -- and Thornton Wilder's -- biggest hit. Carol Channing finally is getting to play it this month at London's historic Drury Lane.
Few thought that "1776" would work, but the National produced that musical's first enthusiastic audiences in February '69, as well as producer Stuart Ostrow's decision to drop the intermission -- a procedure he'd follow three autumns later with another unlikely musical, "Pippin." Its Opera House tryout success enabled Ostrow to up his deficient lighting budget.
But musicals about Washington, even before celebrity-aware houses, have had a bum record. "Mr. President," with an Irving Berlin score, had a dazzling opening night in the fall of '62 with President and Mrs. Kennedy (he didn't arrive till intermission) and Vice President and Mrs. Johnson (who brought their guests in a bus from The Elms) topping the anticipators: the only time on record for both president and vice president at a tryout. It fizzled. A Peace Corps salute, "Hot Spot," was a sorry stage finale for Judy Holliday in '63. And an enormous New York advance sale for the Bernstein-Lerner "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" in April '76 turned to snowflakes.
However, politics and theater are among life's chanciest ventures. And that may be why our politically rooted village always has liked to place bets on new play productions.